FEB 7th 2021
Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church
“The parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…”
It has very nearly become a cliché to describe our modern world as a place of increasing alienation and a land of atomized individuals worlds apart in status, wealth, opinion, and, understanding; a place where one could even be, as they say, lonely in a crowd.
This phenomenon of alienation and estrangement has been exacerbated of course as never before over the course of this past year of pandemic, lockdown, curfew, and quarantine. We can after all no longer so much as afford ourselves the luxury of being lonely in a crowd.
And postage-stamp-sized electronic images of ourselves on something called ZOOM -- who came up with that name? -- have become our substitute for flesh and blood, for touch and breath. We talk to a computer screen, and people half-way around the world can hear our voice and see our flickering image on their screen. But we wonder: It is really us…? Meanwhile, many of us look forward to a future -- not of the future -- but of the past; of dealing once again with genuine encounter; or at a bare-bones minimum, the old, familiar kind of lack of encounter.
This past Tuesday, February second, was in the Church calendar and way of looking at things the Festival Day of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, an event recorded only in the Gospel of Luke and very nearly at the end of his so-called Infancy Narrative, or story of the birth of Jesus. The account is familiar to most all of us: The parents of our Lord -- as we heard moments ago -- bring him to Jerusalem and to the Temple so that he might be dedicated to God in accordance with “what is written in the Law.”
Yet the experience becomes more than a mere presentation or dry ritual. It becomes rather an archetype of what we all crave. It becomes -- it is -- an encounter. It is a flesh-and-blood meeting of flesh-and-blood people: a vulnerable baby; young -- no doubt exhausted but yet joyous -- parents from far-off Galilee; and a couple of unrelated elderly prophets -- Simeon and Anna -- frequent denizens of the Temple who here make their cameo appearances in Scripture and are never heard from again.
At some level, I suppose, the picture the story presents is not unlike scenes or vignettes played out all across the world each day as new-born baby meets grandparents, uncles, aunts, neighbours, and even strangers for the first time. Elder holds infant. One generation bumps into another. Old century collides with new. Time and space seemingly come together. And I once again knows Thou.
No wonder the Orthodox Churches of the East prefer to call this Festival Day, not the Presentation, but rather the Day of Meeting. For, it is about more than our Lord’s first visit to the Temple and his dedication or blessing, as important as this is. Rather, one could almost say that it is at this encounter in the Temple that the old Covenant – the Old Testament, if you will – meets the New Covenant and Testament. It is here that the new generation of redemption in Christ comes to be recognised and proclaimed by the old generation that has been longing for it.
Simeon and Anna are, in this sense, no mere bit players in the drama, for they see it for what it truly is -- encounter and transition. Perhaps we, as Christians, need the Festival Day of the Presentation -- the Day of Meeting, if you like -- more than we realise. It is a pity that it has perhaps lost its meaning for many of us today. For, we need it to remind us once again of our connectedness to one another and to the world around us of which we are an integral part -- in spite of social-distancing, facemasks, and hand sanitisers.
As the New Testament Book of Hebrews explains in our Second Reading today, “Since God's children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things…” As we are human, so is our Lord. He is able to share in our sorrows and joys; our fears and valour. We see that clearly in this encounter at the Temple. Simeon reminds us forcefully that this baby will become “a sign that will be opposed.” And in him, “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Christ is indeed flesh of our flesh. And, perhaps more importantly, we have become flesh of his flesh.
The Temple of Jerusalem, in the thinking of ancient Israel, was more than simply a place to gather for prayer and ritual sacrifice, as important as such things were. The Temple was no mere edifice, the work of human hands alone. It was rather the very dwelling place of God on earth. It was the nexus of the divine and the human; of mortar and the immortal. To go to the Temple was to enter upon an encounter not just with other mortals like oneself but with God. It was to know the Holy and to identify with the story of God’s loving care for his people from the time of the Exodus and throughout the generations.
For us as Christians, our Lord himself has become the new Temple, held that day in Simeon’s arms and standing in the sacred Jerusalem Temple. For us, the place where God dwells among us is no longer a dwelling of stone and brick but of flesh and blood. Christ is now the person through whom we come to know the Father and the salvation of which ancient Simeon speaks, when he proclaims, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” This is why our Orthodox brothers and sister always speak of the Church -- of us -- not as an organisation, although it is that, but as the living Body of Christ on earth. And in Christ, we too have become the Temple; the meeting ground of God with his people.
Alas, this is a reality easy to forget in the best of times as we are busy about our daily lives and cherished routines. But in the midst of pandemic and its enforced seclusion it is a truth we dare not forget. God is still with us, his people. In Christ, we are not deserted or alone. The Church still stands in our hearts and spirit. It is still a place of encounter with each other and with the divine. Perhaps in some paradoxical fashion, our very isolation can make this truth felt even more deeply.
And if the Day of the Presentation is a Day of Encounter and Meeting, it is also a day of transition as Simeon reminds us. “Now, you are dismissing your servant in peace,” he says in recognition of his mortality; yet more in joy than resignation. All encounter is after all transient. Like Simeon and Anna, we shall not all be here forever.
Almost coincidentally, this day also marks the winter cross-quarter day, the half-way mark through the season. It marks for us the gradual transition from winter cold and dark to spring and summer warmth and light. And so the season itself reminds us that the pandemic too will end. And, we shall enter upon a new reality, different from what we have known to be sure, but yet to be discovered in its full promise and challenge. But what does not change in all this is the human capacity for encounter, for warmth and welcome. What does not change is the abundance of God’s love and light.
And if you do not believe me, just ask Simeon and Anna.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs